Prayer Shawl/Red Flag: What Sparks Protest Most? Word 35.

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We tried different slogans for the protest: “Everybody’s Equal!”, “No More Mo!”, “Enough Already!” A kid sitting in the front put down his copy of Harry Potter and started shouting ‘“De-mo-cracy!” (This is all in Hebrew).  And while we were having a good time translating the old Torah tales of protest for our own realities, angry protesters were taking to the streets of Turkey with slogans and fists and demands for change.

Simple slogans, strong symbols –  works best.

This was this past Shabbat, in the shady courtyard of the Democratic School in Pardes Chana, a smallish city in the North, where 50 people gathered for a cozy afternoon of singing, eating and storahtelling – under the auspices of Darchei Noam – a new Masorti/Conservative congregation to this area.  We brought out the Torah and I translated verse by verse, storahtelling style, acting the story out and inviting the crowd to step into the shoes of ancient rebels and leaders and try to figure out what’s really going on and what can we learn about how to or how not to protest injustice. I was unplugged for shabbat and didn’t know that at the same time the protests were starting to grow in Istanbul and Ankara. But it’s not like all the people sitting there haven’t tasted public protest – even the kids. Recent years have seen a lot of them, everywhere, and also in Israel.

The text we read was Korach – this week’s Torah portion, Mose’s cousin, for whom this portion is named is traditionally  considered to be the bad guy, challenging, arrogantly,  the authority of Moses and of God. The protest that he leads ends with a mythic massacre, a miracle: the earth opens up to swallow him and all his followers.

But the more I read into what I think he was really doing the more I think he wasn’t all that wrong. His protest is the demand for equality in leadership, redistribution of power and wealth, and more access to the Divine.


Of course he ends up in a pit. This history, too, is written by the winners.

The Women of the Wall are called ‘Arrogant Procotours’ by pious protectors of the Status Quo and similar names by top government officials and rabbis; the Turkish Prime Minister named the protesters – a cross section of Turkish society – ‘terrorits’.  The 82 year old ‘terrorist nun’?

There’s more to this than meets the eye.

Some of sages also had a soft spot for Korach  and crafted careful rendering of his saga.  There is this one Midrash – a legend from the 5th century CE, about what sparked the Korach revolt: A blue prayer shawl.

In the text immediately preceding this story, Moses commands the people, on behalf of God, to start wearing shawls with fringes on them, one blue fringe on each garment corner. The midrash links the stories, giving Korach the didactic skills of a Talmudic sage and the showmanship of a modern day performance artist.

Korach, in consult with his wife,  creates 250 shawls, all of blue fabric, and attaches fringes to all corners.

He stages a protest with 250 leaders from the community all wrapped in the shawls, in front of the Big Tent.

And then Korach challenges Moses to a duel of words – with a legalistic question:

If the command is to have a blue fringe, what of a shawl that is all blue? does it also require a blue fringe?

Moses replies yes.

But Korach disagrees. ‘You were not instructed these laws by God. You made it up” – he accuses Moses in an early example of Hebraic religious conflict.

And it’s all downhill from there. Either the content of his protest or the way in which he framed it or both – there is no room for opposition under God and Moses.

(Midrash Bemidbar Rabba 18:3:  Full Hebrew text



This coming Sunday, June 9, is the New Moon and that means back to the Wall for a morning of prayer – and protest. Sparked by prayer shawls, worn by more than 250 leaders of the community – all women this time, a big movement and moment has erupted – calling attention to an uncomfortable and important battle for justice, dignity and the change of the status quo at the Western Wall – and in all walks of Jewish life.

The Women of the Wall are about as much liked by most Orthodox keepers of Judaism as Korach himself. Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas, announced that he will attend,health permitting, on Sunday with 100,000 protectors of the faith.



Protester and protectors alike are both chanting the old words of Korach:

“Rav Lachem” – “Enoguh! You’ve gone too far!”


The protest in Turkey was sparked by the refusal of a few young people to see trees uprooted in the the public park; Korach started with a blue fringe. Here in Jerusalem, prayers shawls are again the symobl of all that is sacred and all can stifle the life of the soul.

Korach didn’t win. His story survived to remind us of the right to challenge authority – but also how to do it smarter. and succeed.

I hope that this coming Sunday will offer more prayer, less protest, a step towards respectful co-existence and a bit less hate. I’ll be there, with an all blue prayer shawl, and a slogan turned prayer: enough is enough.

Here’s to more justice, more respect, and way more peace. 

Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Worship Wear Gone Wrong. And Masks? Word #20.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



Holy Wear

בגדי קודש


This past week a lot of Jewish drama around  sacred fabrics that one dons or doesn’t  where and why and by whom or not. The Pope’s Prada pales next to the volume of coverage on the Women of the Wall’s continued fight for freedom to pray and wear shawls and I’m honored to be helpful in the televising of the revolution, to no doubt a noble resolution up ahead. For me this week provided a weird twist on the wearing of this sacred shawl – with plenty reasons to  pause and ponder the power and politics of religious wear.

My personal prayer shawl saga continued curiously from the Western Wall to my brother’s synagogue in the heart of Jerusalem’s Greek Colony. Last week I smuggled  prayer shawls into the Western Wall and wore mine there in a baffling privileged act of defiance. Here at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, the youngest son of the much beloved rabbi in this bustling Modern Orthodox congregation, I wasn’t actually expected, as in, supposed to, wear a prayer shawl at all.

In my family’s custom – Mainstream Ashkenazi, unwed men don’t typically wear a prayer shawl. At 43, even as rabbinic student and 3 kids later, my wearing one at shul in the immediate circle of my family of origin’s Orthodox context – is an eyebrow raiser, a breach of protocol. Not a big deal but still.  O well. I don’t remember when I first starting wrapping myself in prayer shawls – ones that I’ve made. 15 years, at least. But rarely back on the family turf…There have been events in the past years, family reunion weekend or a Shiva minyan in which, wrapped in one, I  got some comments from the more pious and tactless- but I’m not sure that it was just because I had one on or because my usual prayer shawl is a recycled beige Sari with gold brown silk patches, a work of art with one red string attached to the fringes – a gift of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. THAT gets a lot of comments.

I stand out with or without it. A thin veil over who I am within the black and white prayer shawl world of my childhood. And sometimes one doesn’t want to stand out so much..

So I wasn’t sure whether I should come to this Bar Mitzvah with my shawl or not.

And also because I forgot to iron it. Just a few weeks ago, back at ye Western Wall, as the family gathered super early in the cold morning for my Bar Mitzvah nephew’s first wrapping of Tefilin – my mother looked at me through the crack in the fence that separated us and pointed at my shawl and made a face. Later she advised me to try ironing it better or better yet, getting a newer one – “it just doesn’t look very dignified. May have had its day”.

So I went without my prayer shawl that morning, but in each hand held a child’s hand instead. Ezra on the right and Alice on the left, on a sweet short visit from NY with Sally, one of their two moms. As we walk over to the synagogue  I explain to the kids, 6 and 4, that unlike our shul back in NY, in this shul the men and women sit separately, and they can take turns being with Mommy upstairs, or Abba downstairs, and we can play and hang outside. We get there just before my nephew starts to beautifully chant the Torah, and both sections are jam-packed. So we head to the courtyard where the candy tables for later are heavily guarded and a kids service is starting, led by a few of the dads. And just before we sit in the circle I get this craving for a prayer shawl – this total sense that I want to be wrapped in one as I sit here on the grass, with my children, at a prayer service with mostly people I don’t know but who in some part, today, are  family and extended family and congregation. And whatever custom – it’s what made sense.

From the rack in the back I borrow a regular, formerly white wool full length prayer shawl with black stripes and yellowed fringes and wrap it around my shoulders, and kid in each hand, enter the mens’ section in a little step that somehow meant a whole lot more. It’s not like ‘I passed’ or ‘belonged’ but more like I played a part in a play with just the right outfit and felt just right. A costume? perhaps.  Religious wear that felt just right.

On our way out a few minutes later, one of my nephews stops me, smiling – what’s with the boring talit? you’re not going ortho are you…

You can’t win. or maybe I just did?

The power and the politics of holy wear go back a long long time. In this week’s Torah text, Tetzave, the instructions for construction of the tabernacle detail on – including the religious fashion department – and every detail matter, as Moses finds out:

“make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendor and  beauty.” Ex.28

The priestly collection which is described here in Vogeuesque detail, inspired later, post-temple  sages to sanctify the worship-wear for all, and not just for the sons of Aaron. What was once the privileged costume of one (male) leader, became, with time, the symbolic vestments of all, or of most of us, till recent times. The prayer shawls, like the Torah dress, are our modern priestly vestments, and all of us – single or married, male or not – are our modern priests. 

Prayer shawl or beanie or burka or bow tie: Here’s to the right to wear what we wish, as we, hopefully, choose to honor our existence with the garments that make us feel like we belong, more special, sacred, beautiful and ourselves, wrapped within our flimsy truths, and truly wrapped in comfort. 

And then there’s Purim, coming up this wknd, a chance to change and put on briefly any thing you want, shawl or mask and shoes of others, Michelle’s bangs or Sarah’s dress, upturn politics of yes or no, taboos and boos, put on the masks we don’t dare wear every other day, enter like High Priest Aaron into the Holy of Holies of Self, like Queen Esther into the royal chamber of possibilities, possibly against the law of the land, wrapped in beauty and in nothing more than one thin and sacred shawl. 

Wrap it to go. 

Shabbat Shalom

Perfectly Purim!


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.